Wojo: Lions gain credibility in crushing defeat to Chiefs

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Lions' Kenny Golladay hangs onto a touchdown reception in front of Chiefs' Charvarius Ward late in the fourth quarter on Sunday.

Detroit — It was all there, tantalizingly, agonizingly close. The Lions got as close as they possibly could to a signature victory, a narrative-changer, a season-turner. They didn’t get the momentous prize in a momentous game, but they did pick up something else.

The Lions gained credibility, on a day of incredible play. There were as many crazy swings as ever in Ford Field, so many staggering twists and comebacks that when it finally ended, players on both teams sort of milled about, as if unsure it was really over.

Matthew Stafford’s final Hail Mary heave fell short and the Lions took a crunching slug to the gut against one of the best teams in the NFL. The Chiefs showed why they’re 4-0 and a Super Bowl favorite, as reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes marched them for the winning touchdown with 20 seconds left to pull out a 34-30 thriller.

Basically, Kansas City confirmed what most already knew, that their offense can’t be contained for a full game. In the process, the Lions showed something more people likely will believe today. They went toe to toe, tiptoe to tiptoe, punch for punch with the Chiefs, despite missing three players in the secondary, despite losing tight end T.J. Hockenson, despite surrendering a demoralizing 100-yard fumble-return touchdown.

That was the play, early in the third quarter, that made you think nothing will ever change with this team. And then came a bunch of plays that made you think these Lions have legitimate toughness and talent, and legitimate aspirations. I’ll even say, in their 2-1-1 start, this was their best performance, marred by just enough gaffes to produce a crushing outcome.

“I don’t think we need to prove anything to anybody,” Stafford said. “We love the way we practice, the way we work, the way we come out and play. We’re a good football team. We lost to another good football team today. There were a bunch of great plays in this game and a couple of bad plays by each team. It was a good opportunity to beat a good team and we were darn close.”

Still means something

Darn close means nothing in the standings, but it sure felt like it meant something here. After the bye, the Lions will head to Green Bay, and from this point forward, they don’t get extra credit for tight losses. But if Stafford keeps threading impossible throws to Kenny Golladay, and Kerryon Johnson keeps running with power and purpose (125 yards), and the defense keeps scrapping, the Lions should win more games like this.

I know, I know, that defies their history. And they’ll have to string together several more prime efforts before we declare them certain playoff contenders. But in Matt Patricia’s second season, they’re growing into something. They still make too many mistakes, but they don’t cave when it happens.

“I think this is a really mentally tough team,” Patricia said. “I think we’ve proven that through the first four games. I think we’ve proven we will go out and fight, but we need to continue that. Whatever we’ve done in the past doesn’t matter.”

They carried that throughout the game, because whatever they did one minute didn’t affect the next. It was wild, as the teams combined for five fumbles in the third quarter alone. And yet for all the carelessness, both teams made precise, skillful plays, and it was fantastic entertainment.

There was Golladay grabbing a spectacular, toe-tapping 5-yard touchdown pass to break a 13-13 tie, sending the crowd into delirium. And then there was instant replay discovering a slight bobble, negating the score. On the next play, Stafford scrambled from pressure, was hit and lost the fumble.

Toe to toe it went, with the Lions’ ball-control game plan working well, until they got to the red zone. They finished with 447 yards to the Chiefs’ 438, and the Lions weren’t gifted fumbles either. They took them, using well-coached jabs to knock the ball loose, including a punch-and-recovery by Justin Coleman, who was tremendous shoring up a depleted secondary missing standout Darius Slay.

If anyone received gifts, it was the Chiefs. On first down from Kansas City’s 1, game still tied 13-13, Johnson plowed ahead and made the mistake of reaching the ball toward the goal line. In the mass of humanity, the ball slithered loose and the Chiefs’ Bashaud Breeland picked it up. The following scene was half-comical and all-horrifying for the Lions, who stood around assuming the play was dead while Breeland ran 100 yards for the touchdown.

“We had a lot of momentum going for us and it kind of killed it,” Johnson said. “I take full responsibility. … We could have just packed it in, but we didn’t. We fought, but it always comes back to something. You lose points and give up points in one play, it’s catastrophic.”

Fight to the finish

Except that it wasn’t, at least not immediately. Twice, the Lions took the lead back on sizzling throws from Stafford to Golladay. The last one capped a gut-check 79-yard drive, with Golladay leaping for a 6-yard touchdown to make it 30-27 with 2:26 left. He toe-tapped this one too, somehow barely staying in bounds.

Stafford was pinpoint, and outside of the fumble, was practically perfect. He was 21-for-34 for 291 yards and three touchdowns, but there was too much time left for Mahomes. The Chiefs slapped together their own 79-yard drive, and the crusher came on fourth-and-8 from their 34 with 1:55 left. Lions defenders got trapped in coverage and Mahomes raced straight ahead for 15 yards.

From there, it was a painful clock drain for the Lions, before Darrel Williams plowed in from the 1 with 20 seconds left for the winning score.

“I feel like we can compete with the best of them, and obviously that just showed,” Lions safety Tracy Walker said. “They’re considered the best team in the league, and I feel like we fought them teeth in and teeth out. I knew we had that game in the bag, but it didn’t come out that way. We left a lot of plays out there that we should’ve capitalized on.”

Oh, the Lions definitely squandered some chances. Three times they drove inside Kansas City’s 5 and came away with a total of three points. But they also held Mahomes without a touchdown pass for the first time in 15 games, and stirred praise from the opposition.

“My hat goes off to Matt Patricia for the job he has done,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “We saw this on tape, so this wasn’t something we came here not knowing. He has done a phenomenal job with this football team.”

Eventually, the record will have to confirm any progress, and trust me, the “glow” of a hard-fought defeat doesn’t last long. The Lions went toe to toe and tooth to tooth against a great opponent and looked like they belonged. Of all the odd things they’ve done over the years, this was relatively new, dropping a heart-breaker and lifting expectations at the same time.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski